Wednesday, December 26, 2007

On the Stem Cell Controversy

Crossing the rubicon

During a recent conference this summer in Aspen, Colorado Sam Harris described human happiness as falling into a “region” within a spectrum or gradient of human behaviors that tended to embrace more optimal cooperative and altruistic qualities of social interaction. In this way, he noted true happiness is separable- not necessarily independent - from the many cultural, religious, and political pressures that may pull human behavior away from this probabilistic “ideal” region.

Although addressing the many pitfalls and dangers of religious dogma, Harris speaks to other forms of thinking that create similar inflexible positions. As such, when debating a sensitive topic, there are certain intractable opinions; especially those oblivious to the concept of gradients and spectrums, nor those aware of just how messy biology can actually be that one is immediately confronted with nonstarters- debate dies before it can even begin.

So it is with the “hot button” controversy of stem cell research in this country. The necessarily arbitrary "lines in the sand" today’s society struggles to declare as acceptable, as in the abortion issue, have created an epic struggle between dogmatic and pragmatic decisions. This is another area where scientific education and an honest and dispassionate consideration of the information would prove invaluable towards reaching a prudent determination.

One way to begin a truly constructive dialogue would be to become better informed of the issues surrounding stem cell research. Michael Ruse and Christopher Pynes book “The Stem Cell Controversy” seems to provide an important resource towards this end.

According to a review in the July/August Skeptical Inquirer Magazine by Kenneth Krause, this book provides “a balanced anthology recent commentaries, official decrees, and, most important, expert analysis addressing each of these crucial issues.”

Ruse and Pynes describe some of the fascinating advances in stem cell research involving adult stem cells (i.e.; skin cell & umbilical origin) and addresses both their current limitations such as small numbers and lack of pluripotency as well as some potential advantages including a greater specialization- a possible advantage in certain cases such as in central nervous transplants.

On the other hand, the sheer power of embryonic stem cells pluripotency provide the promise of offering a wider range of treatments for a plethora of diseases. These cells also offer a glimpse into the etiological mechanisms of cancer and genetic disorders.

The current US stem cell policies confine embryonic stem cell research to those currently in existence while conversely allowing parents to utilize in vitro fertilization, where many embryonic stem cells are discarded in the process.

The authors go on to describe the complex political and ethical landscape of what a stem cell is and where they fall within the realm of research, treatment, and cures. This will increasingly become that “rubicon” that needs to be crossed in order for this country to attain a reasonable base for stem cell advancement.

This struggle is reminiscent of Sam Harris’ description of that region or spectrum where, through open dialogue and honest assessment of the facts, modern society might attain a balanced and educated position, albeit arbitrary, allowing stem cell research to flower and reach its great promise.

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